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This article was published on May 31, 2017

Why does Google think most happy families are white?

Why does Google think most happy families are white?
Andy Shield
Story by

Andy Shield

Andy Shield is a freelance technology writer with a focus on tech for good. When not writing, you'll find him roaming around the British cou Andy Shield is a freelance technology writer with a focus on tech for good. When not writing, you'll find him roaming around the British countryside.

A Google Images search for ‘happy family’ reveals a significant bias for white, two-parent homes. At the time of writing, 81 of the top 100 results feature white families and just one contains a single parent.

Many are calling for the search giant to reconsider its algorithms, but to label its programmers as biased is missing the point entirely. Google is simply reflecting an historic lack of diversity in online content more broadly.

The top 100 results for ‘happy family’ are derived from a range of sources, including small business websites, national newspapers, blog articles and photo galleries. Over the years, many designers, marketers and publishers have inadvertently created a one-dimensional view of what a family looks like.

For example, in its feature, “the 30 secrets to happy family life”, the Mirror has opted for three images which all depict white households with two parents and 2.4 children. At some point, more than one person at the Mirror has considered the photos to be a suitable way of illustrating the story.

But we can safely assume that there’s no agenda at work here, as that’s clearly in no-one’s interest. It’s certainly not a conspiracy by the national press to generate a narrow view of an average family. So what happened?

To understand the problem more thoroughly, you need to first consider where many online images originate. A quick reverse image search for the three photos in question traces them back to Getty Images, which has been supplying the press, ad agencies and bloggers with visual content since 1995.

If you perform the same “happy family” search on Getty, at the time of writing, 87 of the first 100 results feature white families, which makes it less diverse than Google Images. However, despite this, some of its competitors are even worse still.

  • Alamy (95)
  • Depositphotos (94)
  • Shutterstock (93)
  • Adobe Stock (92)
  • Dreamstime (88)
  • Getty Images (87)
  • iStockPhoto (85)

To get around this problem, you could just alter your search terms to make them deliberately more inclusive, but should you really need to? Gracie Page, Creative Technologist at ad agency, Y&R London, feels that stock photography sites should improve their generic results:

“While more specific properties will likely be searched for at times, such as ‘happy single parent family’, it’s important to make sure the initial more generic search reflects the diverse culture within which we now live.

“Stock photography providers have two jobs in this context: the first is ensuring that contributors submit content that truly reflects what a happy family actually looks like; the second is making sure no unnecessary segregation occurs when general search terms are used.”

By displaying a broader selection of images, it could help us all to make better decisions when choosing how to illustrate an article, feature or website. But, as Gracie mentions, for that to happen, contributors need to actually provide the photos in the first place.

The reason for the imbalance is down to a classic catch 22. Photographers that license their work through stock photography sites usually aim to submit photos that generate more sales. If no-one is buying them, then the cycle perpetuates.

To climb out of this quagmire of uniformity, marketers, designers and business owners need educating on the benefits of avoiding stereotypes. Not only to rectify the disproportionate number of white families, but also to address other diversity issues, such as the complete lack of disability and same-sex couples.

Leila Siddiqi, Head of Diversity at the IPA, explains why diverse brands perform better:

Commercial brands that air non-stereotypically diverse executions are almost by default likely to attract more goodwill, comment, earned media value and social sharing. Adapting our business models to reflect societal shifts, consumer needs and those of our clients is key to our future success, as highlighted in Lloyds Banking Group’s recent ‘Reflecting Modern Britain’ study. Marketers should be mindful of this, right from the get go and aim to ensure that the teams working on the brief are diverse if they want to see real change.

Sharing best practice and building awareness around this is equally important, as done by the recent ‘Easter so White’ campaign which attempted to end visual bias online and reflect real diversity in imagery.

There’s clearly plenty of work to do, but there are a few signs that the situation could improve over coming years. In April, Gucci announced its first all-black ad campaign, which was a tribute to Northern Soul. The fashion industry has encountered a torrent of criticism lately for its continual stereotyping, so this move marked a significant step forward.

Also, a growing number of brands and agencies are opting to avoid stock photography altogether in favor of sourcing images directly from the general public. Social media marketplaces, such as Lobster, are becoming increasingly popular due to their inbuilt diversity. When you gather content from everyone, you tend to get a better view of what the real world actually looks like. CEO, Olga Egorsheva, believes that the days of traditional stock photography are numbered:

Creative agencies are staying clear of tired stock photography as it no longer reflects the way things are. Consumers are demanding more authenticity and turning their backs on ad campaigns that feel fake. Brands that avoid stereotypes will always perform better in a world where trust matters more than anything.

But until the industry shakes off the falsehood that there is even such a thing as a typical family, the situation is likely to continue.